How to gain some weight

Designers are missing a trick with client relationships – adopting the harder-nosed approach of ad agencies could reap long-term benefits, says Shan Preddy

Advertising agencies, PR companies and management consultants work on long-term contracts with their clients, with planned annual income and substantial monthly financial retainers.

Smart people, offering a smart service, receiving smart rewards, using a well-toned financial business model. Most design consultancies, on the other hand, work on a project-by-project basis. We – with our equally smart people – use a business model which remains slightly puny.

Accountant Kingston Smith W1’s Marketing Monitor report shows advertising and PR enjoying robust gross incomes of well over £100 000 a head. And design and digital? A rather scraggy £70-80 000.

How can we build up muscle and put on the pounds? Our cousins in advertising have a basic culture of long-termism, an assumption of ongoing relationships and contractual, paid-for commitments – the expectation is that clients will be kept until lost.

In design, we expect clients to remain for the project, then hope they’ll return for more. Our cousins sell relationships, we sell projects. They enjoy marriage, we’re ‘just dating’.

Of course, many UK design consultancies have lengthy relationships with their clients, but are they paid for the time between projects? Do they get work without submitting ideas or even pitching? Do they have contracts? Regular payments?

Probably not. And although many design consultancies are on approved suppliers’ lists, this only creates a mirage of long-termism. We all know that it doesn’t guarantee work.

Back to our higher-income, retained cousins. How did this come about? It’s to do with historical business norms, which exist in all sectors. At home, we haggle over antique furniture, but not modern furniture. We buy annual service contracts for central heating, but buy our car services and repair on a pay-asyou- go basis. It’s not always logical, nor does it depend on the competitiveness.

So how about it? Would you like to work to a new business norm of long-term clients with contracts and regular, monthly fee payments?

Some of the advantages are obvious. For example, how far ahead can you accurately plan your financial situation? More than eight to ten weeks? How would you like to be able to extend it indefinitely? Imagine the savings on resource planning with freelance and recruitment costs, or the reductions in marketing expenditure and effort. And think of the money, time, energy and stress you’d save on pitches. Just how much have you spent on that over the past 12 months?

You won’t be offered it. You’ll need to propose it, and you’ll need to focus on the benefits to clients. What’s in it for them? What can we learn from our ad and PR cousins? How about a full complement of specialists, including client service teams? Along with monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of design interventions. Spending our own money on consumer and market research.

Investigating trends and reporting on the implications. A more active relationship, where we regularly take the initiative and invest time, expertise and money. A guarantee of quicker turnaround times or lower costs per project. Exclusivity, so that we agree not to work for their competitors. Free training for their staff, and invitations to thought-leadership events.

Our muscle-bound cousins do these things, as does the top-most tier of enlightened design consultancies. They live and breathe their clients’ brands, often knowing as much about them as their clients do, if not more. They position themselves as experts, as partners, as an extension of the client’s company, as strong right-hand men and women. And they’re paid properly for it.

‘Ah,’ I hear a chorus of clients say. ‘My design consultancy already gives me these things anyway. For free. Without a retainer.’ And there’s the problem. We’re good in the design world at over-servicing and under-charging. We even give away our creative work, our life-blood. Free-pitching will always keep us skinny.

So how about this for a proposition? Let’s work together to change things and embrace long-termism. We are very well-placed to do it. Unlike any of our competitors worldwide, the UK has a great gym and a great army of personal trainers. We have the Design Council, the Chartered Society of Designers, D&AD, and membership organisations such as British Design Innovation. We have our trade body, the Design Business Association, the envy of design groups around the world, which has provided the roadmap to accountability with its Design Effectiveness Awards. And we have Design Week, the world’s only weekly design publication. Use them. Start a debate. Join forces.

Change the norm. Embrace long-termism. Gain weight. Shan Preddy is a partner at business development consultant Preddy & Co



  • Think long-term relationships
  • Negotiate monthly retainers
  • On-call, not pay-as-you-go
  • Develop benefits for retained clients
  • Value yourself – never give away work for free
  • Join the debate




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  • Michael Skeats November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article, I entirely agree. The problem is that there will always be those that offer that ‘little extra’ for nothing and leave the rest of us red faced for even suggesting the idea. With budgets tight and competition heavy, is now really the time to be pushing for more?

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